John Grierson - Director

Nationality: Scottish. Born: Deanston, Scotland, 18 April 1898. Education: Glasgow University, degree in philosophy, 1923. Military Service: Served in Royal Navy, World War I. Family: Married Margaret Taylor, 1930. Career: Travelled to United States to study press, cinema, and other mass media, 1924–27; joined Empire Marketing Board (EMB) Film Unit under Stephen Tallents, London, 1927; produced and directed Drifters , 1928–29; became head of General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit when EMB dissolved and its Film unit transferred to GPO, 1933; resigned from GPO to form Film Centre with Arthur Elton, Stuart Legg, and J.P.R. Golightly, 1937; Film Advisor to Imperial Relations Trust, and to Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Governments, 1937–40; Film Commissioner of Canada, helped establish National Film Board of Canada, 1939–45; Co-coordinator of Mass Media at UNESCO, 1947; Controller, Films Division of Central Office of Information, London, 1948–50; Joint Executive Producer of Group 3, established by National Finance Company to produce feature films, 1951–54; became member of Films on Scotland Committee, 1954; produced and presented This Wonderful World for Scottish television, 1955–65. Awards: Commander of the British Empire, 1948; Golden Thistle Award, Edinburgh Film Festival, 1968. Died: 19 February 1972.

John Grierson (left) with Ralph Forster
John Grierson (left) with Ralph Forster

Films as Director:


Drifters (+ sc)

Other Films:


Conquest (pr, co-ed)


The Country Comes to Town (Wright) (pr); Shadow on the Mountain (pr); Upstream (pr)


Industrial Britain (Flaherty) (pr, co-ed)


King Log (pr); The New Generation (pr); The New Operator (pr); O'er Hill and Dale (Wright) (pr); The Voice of the World (pr)


Aero-Engine (pr); Cargo from Jamaica (Wright) (pr); The Coming of the Dial (pr); Eskimo Village (pr); Line Cruising South (Wright) (pr); So This Is London (pr); Telephone Workers (pr); Uncharted Waters (pr); Windmill in Barbados (Wright) (pr)


BBC: Droitwich (Watt) (pr); Granton Trawler (Cavalcanti) (pr, ph); Pett and Pott (Cavalcanti) (pr); Post Haste (pr); Six-Thirty Collection (Watt) (pr); Song of Ceylon (Wright) (pr, co-sc); Spring Comes to England (co-pr); Spring on the Farm (pr); Weather Forecast (pr)


BBC: The Voice of Britain (co-pr); Coalface (Cavalcanti) (pr); Introducing the Dial (pr)


Night Mail (Watt and Wright) (pr, co-sc); The Saving of Bill Blewett (Watt) (pr); Trade Tattoo (pr)


Calender of the Year (pr); Children at School (Wright) (co-pr); Four Barriers (pr); Job in a Million (pr); Line to Tschierva Hut (Cavalcanti) (pr); The Smoke Menace (co-pr); We Live in Two Worlds (pr)


The Face of Scotland (Wright) (pr)


The Londoners (co-pr)


Judgment Deferred (exec pr); Brandy for the Parson (exec pr)


The Brave Don't Cry (exec pr); Laxdale Hall (exec pr); The Oracle (exec pr); Time Gentlemen Please (exec pr); You're Only Young Twice (exec pr)


Man of Africa (exec pr); Orders Are Orders (exec pr)


Seawards the Great Ships (treatment)


Heart of Scotland (treatment)


By GRIERSON: books—

Grierson on Documentary , edited by Forsyth Hardy, revised edition, London, 1966.

By GRIERSON: articles—

"Future for British Film," in Spectator (London), 14 May 1932.

"The Symphonic Film I," in Cinema Quarterly (London), Spring 1933.

"The Symphonic Film II," in Cinema Quarterly (London), Spring 1934.

"One Hundred Percent Cinema," in Spectator (London), 23 August 1935.

"Dramatising Housing Needs and City Planning," in Films (London), November 1939.

"Post-War Patterns," in Hollywood Quarterly , January 1946.

"Prospect for Documentary," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1948.

"Flaherty as Innovator," in Sight and Sound (London), October/December 1951.

"The Front Page," in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1952.

"The BBC and All That," in Quarterly of Film, Radio, Television (Berkeley), Fall 1954.

"Making of Man of Africa ," in Films and Filming (London), October 1954.

"The Prospect for Cultural Cinema," in Film (London), January/February 1956.

"I Derive My Authority from Moses," in Take One (Montreal), January/February 1970.

"The Golden Years of Grierson," interview with Elizabeth Sussex, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1972.

"Grierson on Documentary: Last Interview," with Elizabeth Sussex, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1972.

On GRIERSON: books—

Rotha, Paul, Rotha on Film , London, 1958.

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Film , 4th Edition, London, 1964.

Lovell, Alan, and Jim Hillier, Studies in Documentary , New York, 1972.

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson , Berkeley, 1975.

Beveridge, J.A., John Grierson—Film Master , New York, 1978.

Hardy, Forsyth, John Grierson: A Documentary Biography , London, 1979.

Evans, Gary, John Grierson and the National Film Board: The Politics of Wartime Propaganda , Toronto, 1984.

Ellis, Jack C., John Grierson: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1986.

Nelson, Joyce, The Colonized Eye: Rethinking the Grierson Legend , Toronto, 1988.

Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.

Aitken, Ian, Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement , London and New York, 1990.

Chittock, John, editor, and Julian Petley, researcher and compiler, Researchers' Guide to John Grierson: Films, Reference Sources, Collections, Data , London, 1990.

Winston, Brian, Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and Its Legitimations , London, 1995.

Ellis, Jack C., John Grierson: Life, Contributions, Influence , Carbondale, Illinois, 2000.

On GRIERSON: articles—

Lambert, Gavin, "Who Wants True?," in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1952.

Ellis, Jack C., "The Young Grierson in America," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1968.

Ellis, Jack C., "John Grierson's First Years at the National Film Board," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1970.

Sussex, Elizabeth, "John Grierson," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1972.

James, R., "Le Rêve de Grierson," in Cinéma Québec (Montreal), May 1972.

Ellis, Jack C., "Grierson at University," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Spring 1973.

Dickinson, T., "The Rise and Fall of the British Documentary," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1977.

Goetz, W., "The Canadian Wartime Documentary," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Spring 1977.

MacGann, R.D., "Subsidy for the Screen: Grierson and Group Three/1951–55," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1977.

Herrick, D., "The Canadian Connection: John Grierson," in Cinema Canada (Montreal), September/October 1978.

Cox, K., "The Grierson Files," in Cinema Canada (Montreal), June/July 1979.

"John Grierson," in Film Dope (London), October 1980.

Ellis, Jack C., "Changing of the Guard: From the Grierson documentary to Free Cinema," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Winter 1982.

Pratley, Gerald, "Only Grierson," in Films and Filming (London), March 1982.

Swann, P., "John Grierson and the G.P.O. Film Unit, 1933–39," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and TV (Abindon, Oxon), March 1983.

Ellis, Jack C., "The Final Years of British Documentary as the Grierson Movement," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), Fall 1984.

Tomaselli, K., "Grierson in South Africa: Culture, State, and Nationalist Ideology in the South African Film Industry: 1940–41," in Cinema Canada (Montreal), September 1985.

Donald, J., "Machines of Democracy: Education and Entertainment in Inter-War Britain," in Critical Quarterly , vol. 30, no. 3, 1988.

"Grierson Issue" of Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and TV (Abingdon, Oxon), vol. 9, no. 3, 1989.

Forsyth, S., "The Failures of Nationalism and Democracy: Grierson and Gouzenko," in Canadian Journal of Film Studies (North York, Ontario), vol. 1, no. 1, 1990.

Pilard, P., "John Grierson et le cinéma documentaire," in Cinémaction (Paris), no. 60, July 1991.

Acland, C.R., "National Dreams, International Encounters: The Formation of Canadian Film Culture in the 1930s," in Canadian Journal of Film Studies (North York, Ontario), vol. 3, no. 1, Spring 1994.

* * *

More than any one other person, John Grierson was responsible for the documentary film as it has developed in the English-speaking countries. He was the first to use the word documentary in relation to film, applying it to Robert Flaherty's Moana while Grierson was in the United States in the 1920s.

Grierson took the term and his evolving conception of a new kind and use of film back to Britain with him in 1927. There he was hired by Stephen Tallents, secretary of the Empire Marketing Board, a unique government public relations agency intended to promote the marketing of the products of the British Empire.

The first practical application of Grierson's ideas at the EMB was Drifters in 1929, a short feature about herring fishing in the North Sea. Following its success, Grierson established, with the full support of Tallents, the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit instead of pursuing a career as an individual filmmaker. He staffed the Film Unit with young people, mostly middle class and well educated (many were from Cambridge University). Basil Wright, Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, and Paul Rotha were among the early recruits; Stuart Legg and Harry Watt came later, as did Humphrey Jennings. Alberto Cavalcanti joined the group shortly after it moved to the General Post Office and served as a sort of co-producer and co-teacher with Grierson.

The training at the EMB Film Unit and subsequently the General Post Office Film Unit was ideological as well as technical and aesthetic. The young filmmakers exposed to it came to share Grierson's broad social purposes and developed an extraordinary loyalty to him and to his goals. It was in this way that the British documentary movement was given shape and impetus.

Grierson wanted documentaries to inform the public about their nation and involve them emotionally with the workings of their government. His assumptions were as follows: if people at work in one part of the Empire are shown to people in the other parts, and if a government service is presented to the population at large, an understanding and appreciation of the interrelatedness of the modern world, and of our dependency on each other, will develop and everyone will want to contribute his or her share to the better functioning of the whole. On these assumptions was based the first phase in Grierson's lifelong activity on behalf of citizenship education. Phase one included some of the most innovative, lovely, and lasting of the British documentaries: Drifters, Industrial Britain, Granton Trawler, Song of Ceylon, Coal Face , and Night Mail. Phase two, which began in the mid-1930s, consisted of calling public attention to pressing problems faced by the nation, insistence that these problems needed to be solved, and suggestions about their causes and possible solutions. Since these matters may have involved differing political positions (and in any case did not relate directly to the concerns of the sponsoring General Post Office), Grierson stepped outside the GPO to enlist sponsorship from private industry. Big oil and gas concerns were especially responsive to his persuasion. The subjects dealt with in this new kind of documentary included unemployment ( Workers and Jobs ), slums ( Housing Problems ), malnutrition among the poor ( Enough to Eat? ), smog ( The Smoke Menace ), and education ( Children at School ). Unlike the earlier British documentaries, these films were journalistic rather than poetic, and seemed quite unartistic. Yet they incorporated formal and technical experiments. Most notable among these was the direct interview, with slum dwellers in Housing Problems , for example, presaging the much later cinéma vérité method. The direct interview remains a standard technique of television documentary today.

Grierson's use of institutional sponsorship—public and private—to pay for his kind of filmmaking, rather than depend on returns from the box office, was a key innovation in the development of documentary. A second innovation, complementing the first, was nontheatrical distribution and exhibition: going outside the movie theaters to reach audiences in schools and factories, union halls and church basements.

During the ten years between Drifters and Grierson's departure for Canada in 1939, the sixty or so filmmakers who comprised the British documentary movement made over three hundred films. These films and the system they came out of became models for other countries. Paul Rotha, one of Grierson's principal lieutenants, went on a six-month missionary expedition to the United States in 1937, and film people from America and other countries visited the documentary units in Britain. Grierson, meanwhile, carried his ideas not only to Canada, where he drafted legislation for the National Film Board and became its first head, but to New Zealand, Australia, and later South Africa, all of which established national film boards.

The National Film Board of Canada stands as the largest and most impressive monument to Grierson's concepts and actions relating to the use of film by governments in communicating with their citizens. During his Canadian years he moved beyond national concerns to global ones. The Film Board's The World in Action , a monthly series for the theaters along March of Time lines, expressed some of these concerns. His ideas regarding the education of citizens required in a world at war, and a new world to follow, were expressed in major essays that have inspired many who have read them. "The Challenge of Peace," reprinted in Grierson on Documentary , is one of them.

It is for his many-faceted, innovative leadership in film and in education that Grierson is most to be valued. As a theoretician he articulated the basis of the documentary film, its form and function, its aesthetic and its ethic. As a teacher he trained and, through his writing and speaking, influenced many documentary filmmakers, not only in Britain and Canada but throughout the world. As a producer he was responsible to one extent or another for thousands of films, and he played a decisive creative role in some of the most important of them. In addition, he was an adroit political figure and dedicated civil servant for most of his life. Whether in the employ of a government or not, his central concern was always with communicating to people (of a nation and of the world) the information and attitudes that he thought would help them to lead more useful, productive, satisfying, and rewarding lives.

—Jack C. Ellis

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